Crossing that lonely river: a tribute to Rod Mark

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 15, 2006

My longtime coffee companion Rod Mark, educator, musician, and first member of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at Morley to earn a university degree, passed away March 9. He was 56.

I first met Rod in late autumn, 1965. We had just moved to Morley and were settling into a small log cabin along the escarpment south of the school. His dad and mom, John and Georgie Mark, together with the rest of their children, had stopped by one evening to welcome us to the community. We sipped tea together and shared stories about our families.

A friendship was formed that night that bonded us together as close as kin. And that bond extended to others in the family, too. Three of his grandparents became important parts of my own life – the late Jake Twoyoungmen and Paul and Eunice Mark. They modeled for Rod the values of respect, gentleness and perseverance that characterized him throughout his life.

I pay special honour to them now: Thank you, Grandmother and Grandfathers and John and Georgie, for sharing with us a son who brought hope and happiness to so many.

Rod and I did a lot of traveling together. There was that time we hiked most of the length of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, blistered feet and all.

Then there was that summer in the mid-1970s when we drove up to Edmonton and points northeast. In those days, Rod played bass guitar with a wonderful musical group, the Stoney Four (Charlie Mark on rhythm guitar, Clarence Wesley on fiddle and steel guitar, and Buddy Wesley, lead guitar). They often provided the music for old-time gospel camp meetings.

On this particular occasion they had teamed up with travelling evangelist Charles Enloe – affectionately known as "Brother Charles" – to record a country and bluegrass gospel album. They brought me along as photographer. I think I first started taking coffee real seriously on that trip, as a string of sleepless nights were spent in practice, recording, and re-recording for "A Vision of Jesus."

Rod was in his third year of studies at the University of Calgary when he made that record. A year later my wife, Mary Anna, and I sat proudly in the audience as Rod received his degree in education, the first in his community to do so – but many others would soon follow.

It wasn't long before Rod became one of the most popular teachers the Morley Community School has ever had. When he became school principal, it wasn't unusual at all to see students of all ages flocking around him in the halls, enjoying his attention and drawing inspiration from him for their own lives.

So many times I saw the glow of smiles and sparkling eyes that passed between Rod and his students. And when conflicts arose among the kids, Rod was a peacemaker, knowing how to listen and understanding the respectful ways to respond.

He learned well from his grandparents and parents.

Rod went on to become director of education at Morley for a while, and assumed many other leadership responsibilities, as well. He was also in demand as an entertaining master of ceremonies at public events.

Amidst all his varied commitments, however, his music was never far from him, and he could always be counted on to sing joyfully at church and comfortingly at wakes and funerals. (Our mutual friend Roland Rollinmud, musician and artist, estimates that Rod knew over 60 pieces by heart!)

Some years ago Rod developed a brain tumour that eventually drained him of all his energy and left him wheelchair-bound. No longer able to work in the education system, he continued inspiring his own children to do their very best. His heart must be smiling now, as he reflects on their achievements at school and work. He can rest in peace, knowing his wife, Reatha, will carry on that supportive presence in their lives.

One of the tracks Rod recorded so many years ago with Brother Charles and the Stoney Four is entitled "I've Got to Cross That Lonely River." Although Rod and I journeyed together many miles in our friendship, he made his final journey all alone.

And yet, he knew he was not really alone. His grandparents and parents had long taught him that, even when crossing that lonely river of death, God would be with him – just as God will be with his family now in his absence.

Thanks for the memories, Rod. Till we meet again . . . .

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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